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Star Trek (2009)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/15/09 12:40:26

"Boldly going into the twenty-first (and twenty-third) century."
5 stars (Awesome)

Back in high school or college, talking with fellow fans, I tossed out the idea that a fun thing for Paramount to do for "Star Trek"'s upcoming thirtieth anniversary would be to make a new movie, set during the original five-year mission, with new people playing the familiar characters but modern production values. While it made for a fun fantasy casting game (I think I wanted Keifer Sutherland to play Kirk), most claimed that it shouldn't be any more than that, because The Original Series was untouchable. So, if any of you are reading this, 15-odd years later, it is a great pleasure to say I told you so.

Happily, the pleasure comes less from personal validation than the fact that I got to watch the 2009 edition of Star Trek in a packed theater with a giant screen and a bunch of people who seemed to be having nearly as much fun as I was. Like others have done with Batman Begins and Casino Royale before them, the makers of Star Trek have gone back to the beginning to tell a first chapter which had never appeared on film, jettisoned all the bits that made for easy parody, and refocused on the things that made these worlds appealing in the first place. And as good as those other two movies are, the process is especially revelatory for Star Trek: Batman and James Bond have either had various soft resets or been kept in a sort of enforced stasis, but Star Trek had not only allowed forty years (or three times as much, depending how you want to reckon these things) of restrictive details to accumulate, but it achieved a crushing level of solemnity that was not in the original playbook. Even leaving aside how the sequel series converted ideals into dogma, there is, in retrospect, something very wrong about how the features made a show about boldly going forward into meditations on aging, death, and obsolescence.

To hell with that, say director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. They open with the moments leading to James T. Kirk's birth as a Romulan mining ship emerges from a strange anomaly with its captain, Nero (Eric Bana), demanding to speak to "Ambassador Spock". The U.S.S. Kelvin and its first officer, George Kirk, hold Nero back at great cost. We're then treated to scenes of Kirk's son James and the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock as children and young adults, following their paths to Starfleet Academy, where Kirk makes friends with the recently-divorced, space-phobic Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban). Word of a crisis on Spock's home planet forces Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Commander Spock to crew the just-completed starship Enterprise with junior officers and cadets, including Kirk, McCoy, Helmsman Sulu (John Cho), 17-year-old whiz kid Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and xenolinguist Uhura (Zoe Saldana). When they get there, they discover that Nero is back, and the stakes are higher than they could have imagined.

They're also higher than the fans could have imagined, because it's at this point that the movie announces loud and clear that the familiar future history of Star Trek is no longer set in stone. This will greatly annoy a certain variety of fan, but it gets the franchise back to where it started in the sixties, when Gene Roddenberry and his crew were making it up as they went along and could do anything that crossed their minds. Abrams and crew restore that sense of seeming recklessness, and it's a good match to their main character.

Chris Pine nails that part of Kirk, too. His Kirk isn't the same as William Shatner's - he's still young and headstrong, overestimating himself, a cocky son of a gun not yet matured into the sly fellow we know. What comes across is that, whether he's being cunning, foolhardy, a horndog or a fighter, Kirk is decisive, but can afford to be because he's got the brains and charisma to back it up. Zachary Quinto's Spock is the same way, although there tends to be more overt self-examination to him. He does the expected thing of holding his emotions in check, as the Vulcans prize logic above all, but he also gets Spock's dry sarcasm right (others playing Vulcans in the franchise have had a hard time stopping short of smug).

The rest of the cast does a similarly good job of recreating the characters without doing simple impersonations. Karl Urban's McCoy is the closest to his predecessor visually, although he turns the crotchetiness down: For all Urban's McCoy complains, he's also excited about his fresh start and the potential for adventure. Yelchin and Saldana perhaps make characters who mainly warmed seats in the sixties more memorable this time around, although John Cho has a hard time emerging from the background. Simon Pegg provides a late energy boost as Scotty, and Bruce Greenwood a nice mentor figure as Pike. Unfortunately, Eric Bana is sort of all over the map as Nero; it's not just that much of his backstory has been off-loaded into a comic book tie-in, but Bana sometimes doesn't seem sure whether he wants Nero fierce or laid-back, a working-class guy goaded into supervillainy by circumstance.

Original series star Leonard Nimoy is here, too, as an aged Spock, lending a little more legitimacy to an idea that, at times, met with a lot of resistance. It's clear that, as much as they are attempting to create something new and modern, the filmmakers are being careful not to mess with the formula too much, not just to avoid alienating the built-in audience, but because it has worked for forty-plus years. They load the movie up with easter eggs that fans will enjoy, and keep things moving along at a brisk enough pace that some of the holes in the script won't be noticed until after the closing credits. I won't lie - there are more than a few moments when one has to wonder if that's really what someone as intelligent as the characters are supposed to be would do. Hopefully they'll do better next time, because I suspect that my fellow fans and I might not be quite so forgiving.

I am inclined to be forgiving this time, though, because this is the first bit of "Star Trek" filmed in my lifetime that feels like the original. It's fast-paced, sexy, funny, and takes place in a galaxy filled with danger, but also excitement and adventure. The various incarnations of "Star Trek" have been a number of good things (and some bad things), but it's been a while since they've felt this wide-open and unpredictable.

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